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Vincent Gardenia

Review: Bang the Drum Slowly

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

What the reviewers have said about Bang the Drum Slowly avoiding the overwrought sentimentalism of a Brian’s Song or a Love Story is only partly true. But the film does offer honest schmaltz as a viable alternative to the tasteless kitsch of previous films about dying young. The story concerns a major-league catcher, Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro), who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, and the efforts of his roommate, pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), to look after Pearson’s best interests during what they both feel will be the catcher’s last season. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are purported to be not about baseball, but rather about friendship, the baseball setting being incidental. As far as I can tell, this contention was created for the blurbs, in order not to lose the audience of people who don’t know or don’t like baseball. The novel in fact may not be about baseball, but it most certainly is about a baseball team. The meat of Harris’s novel is the behavior of a given group of baseball players and the way in which that behavior is altered, in individuals and in the team as a whole, by the knowledge that one of their number is dying. This is where the film version goes awry. In trying too hard not to be “about baseball,” it plays down the supporting characters, the ballplayers themselves, to the point where the whole impact of the novel is lost. The team concept which is central to the novel is give mere lip service in some voiceover narration from the pages of the book. The tension about the outcome of the season, which underlies every word of the novel, is nonexistent in the film. Instead we have the well-acted interplay among the pitcher, the catcher, a coach, the manager, and a whore who attempts to swindle the catcher out of his insurance money. All of this was present in the novel, of course; but it supported the larger theme of the behavior of human beings as they watch someone die, and the effect the experience has on their own, unthreatened lives.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Review: Lucky Luciano

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Francesco Rosi’s attempt to adapt the method of The Mattei Affair to the career of Charles “Lucky” Luciano fails almost completely. What made the earlier film such a morally disturbing and aesthetically challenging experience was its formal complexity as a real-life mystery story in which the levels and processes of the narrative act became implicated in the hypotheses and half-truths it hoped to sort out. No such structural complexity informs Lucky Luciano. Sections of the movie are compelling, partly because they are imaginatively filmed, partly—the greater part—because they provide us with fascinating historical dirt: e.g., the connivance between Vito Genovese (Charles Cioffi) and the United States Army after the liberation of Italy. But whereas the fractured chronology and mixture of narrative modes served in Mattei Affair to render the very abundance of its mountain of evidence meaningful, here the method merely produces a muddle.

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Review: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The Front Page may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas The Front Page, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.

I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. The Front Page seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.

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